An Interview With Chris Hines MBE

04 . 03 . 17

Every surf spot has its characters who are recognised for one reason or another. Our local break has one such individual who is highly regarded far beyond the beach and who deserves to be celebrated and thanked by surfers around the UK for the work he has done for us all. Chris Hines MBE (which he says stands for “moaning bloody environmentalist) was a founding member of Surfers Against Sewage, a special advisor to the Secretary of State for the Environment, The Eden Project’s first Director of Sustainability and is, as far as we are aware, the only surfer to have received an honour from the Queen for activities related to surfing. Not only is Chris a pleasure to share the line-up with, but he’s also a great authority on sustainability and environmental issues, particularly as they relate to our world of surfing. We took the opportunity recently to sit down for a coffee with him on a particularly blown out day at our local beach, and asked him a few questions. His answers were as every bit as interesting and insightful as you might expect. Enjoy:

You’ve been involved in environmental activism and sustainability, often through the lens of surfing, for almost thirty years. How have you seen attitudes to issues affecting the environment change over that time?

It’s been amazing, I think. Positively, I would say that environmentalism has gone from being quite fringe to being absolutely core, and when I say core I mean at government level, legislative level, business level, and general awareness in society. Over the last few years though we seem to have started going backwards because we now live in this post-fact world where people are able to say, “Well, climate change doesn’t exist”. I think it’s amazing that it’s come such a long way, and our technology has shifted and our ability and understanding of it has changed drastically, and underneath the appearance of it going backwards the ongoing trend is still headed in the right direction. The groundswell is going the right way, but there’s a bit of surface chop going against it, which is what we see. Our politicians will come and go, but the general trend of our technology and our businesses are going in the right direction. Leadership is one of our biggest challenges, and communication of sustainability and environmental messages – and the social benefits of it. I’m optimistic in the long term.

Regarding sustainable surfboards, you were one of the people behind the Eden Project’s sustainable surfboard (made using balsa from the tropical biome and now slowly returning to whence it came) whilst working as Eden’s sustainability director. Where do you think the balance needs to lie in surfboard construction, between durability/longevity and provenance of materials?

Loving your surfboard is important. Each one of us is incredibly lucky to have a surfboard, so whatever it’s made of: love it, look after it, don’t get worried if it ends up looking beaten up at some point or another. Longevity is a massive great issue.

That extra little bit of strength in a board is key, talking about what you do with wooden boards for example is slightly different, but for the majority of surfers who want to ride high performance lightweight foam boards. All of us can afford to have a slightly heavier board; it won’t really make that much difference if your surfboard is 5% heavier. That’s not the bit that decides whether you get a good wave or not for 95% of all surfers. What it does mean is that your board won’t ding or crease or snap as easily. Maybe also you need to pay a little bit more for your surfboard – don’t expect to get a surfboard for quite as cheap as chips. That’s not a good thing. If something’s cheap then there’s a reason that it’s cheap: someone, somewhere, or the environment, has suffered along the way. It’s like two t-shirts for ten pounds.

You can’t buy good quality, environmentally and socially sound t-shirts at two for ten quid. It just can’t be done. My Surfers Against Sewage boards that I used to take around for demos and publicity photos used to have an extra heavy glass job on them because they were often being put down on concrete. I don’t think they ever stopped me surfing any better than if I had a normal glass job and in fact they probably helped me to get over the lip on super windy days because of that bit of extra weight. Love your board. Look after it. Have a slightly stronger surfboard than you might think you need.

Maybe there’ll come through a technology that will allow for stronger boards without sacrificing weight, whether it be that we bake a blank in the same way that we bake a loaf of bread – I don’t think we’ve even touched on that or got anywhere close to what’s possible with surfboard technology and materials. I’d love to see the industry put up an innovation fund to find out if we can make a surfboard in a different way and do that research collectively as an industry and then share good practice, through open source technology because it will benefit us all, as a sport and through our interactions with the planet. Is that wishful thinking? I don’t know that it is. It just takes good leadership from a few companies. It comes back to being culturally green versus being scientifically green.

When we did that board at Eden we also worked with Homeblown who turned the balsa into a blank. They started blowing a biofoam, which was 35% plant based materials. But when we dug into it, we found that the plant based oil that was being used was soya so it was probably coming from monocultures in land that was formerly the Amazon rainforest! You realise that there’s no simple way. You have to dig deep and ask questions and be principled. Things can be done, though. We need to see more energy going in from the surfboard industry. At the moment, it takes what it’s given.

When we were working on the biofoam we worked out that for every ton used in surfboards, probably 1000 tons of similar foam would be used in boatbuilding. And how much foam is used by the construction industry for insulation? Unbelievable amounts. At the moment, they’re all oil based foams, so one of my big arguments and challenges to the surfing industry is, in the same way that we used surfing as a marketing tool for Surfer’s Against Sewage to drive change way disproportionate to the number of surfers that there were at the time, if we sort ourselves out and were to create an amazing foam that is sustainable, we would be able to use surfing and say “surfers have solved this issue for the construction industry”. Why can’t we do that? Why should we wait to say, “Oh, the construction industry has solved it” and hang on their coat tails? Is that what we’re about? Are we going to follow everybody else’s lead because we’re too busy going surfing? Definitely go surfing and have a good time, but help drive that change and use our energy. We are some of the luckiest people on the face of the planet. We have food, shelter and we get to go surfing. It’s a big deal, and we should give something back along the way.

But with surfboards: love your surfboard and realise that you’re unlikely to ever surf like the pros that you watch on a surf film so get a board that you like, and get one that will last.

As surfing continues to grow in popularity, and there are more “users” at surf spots and more consumers, what role do you think artificial wave technology could have in relieving the growing pressure on surf spots?

It’s a double edged sword. It might create more surfers who will go to surf spots – that could happen – but they’re coming anyway. Surfing’s popularity is going to continue to increase, so artificial waves could have a massive benefit there but I think that we need to be very careful in the way that they’re set up. It’s going to be really important that part of going to an artificial wave imprints on and helps to educate people about good surfing etiquette, because when we talk about crowded breaks, yes our breaks are crowded but the biggest problem isn’t the crowd but the etiquette.

It’s all there, all of our great surfing heroes have said things like “give a wave” or “the best surfer in the water’s the one having the most fun”, but it just gets mad. I don’t know whether some of that’s ego, or if some of it’s the macho element because of the ratio of men to women in the line-up? I’ve seen outrageous stuff in the water here with guys dropping in on women and giving the excuse that they “don’t know who she is and whether or not she can surf”. Who do they think they are?

Artificial waves will I think be amazing; they’re coming. I don’t believe that a single artificial wave should run without being on a green energy tariff, and preferably sourcing some of its electricity on site. There’s no way that surfers from the rich western world should be surfing artificial waves with a carbon footprint that isn’t sourced from renewables so that there isn’t a significantly reduced or neutral carbon footprint. Sea level rise due to climate change is putting communities underwater and killing people, acidification of oceans is breaking up coral reefs, so even if you don’t care about people on the other side of the planet and you’re just doing it for selfish reasons, you still shouldn’t do it because the reefs that you want to surf are going to disappear deeper under water and dissolve.

Are there any organisations, brands or individuals who you think could be doing more to use their influence and reach for good?

I’d say the World Surf League. I think that they could be doing more. They do some good stuff, but they have a lot of time to talk and they could fill that up with some very interesting interviews. You think about all of that downtime: every lay day, where they just talk rubbish quite a lot of the time. That’s not a criticism of those commentators and announcers, but they need to realise that there’s an awful lot of really intelligent people who surf. Just build up that whole profile, and pay some of them! It would make the World Surf League broader and so much more interesting. They could do a whole lot.

Individuals? Kelly has come under some flack recently, and rightly so. I do think that he should have come out and said “I am voting and I’m actually not particularly happy with that imagery and the lack of respect for half of the population of the world” (women). Is he really happy with a president who denies climate change? Who wants to close borders? Because if you’re an American surfer right now how are those trips to Baja going to go? I don’t know that I’d want to be an American surfer heading down into deeper Baja or off the main route. In the same way that we saw with the Bali bombings I know that some people will freak out and say “how dare you, we’re surfers we should be able to go anywhere and shouldn’t be involved in this”, but we should. We’re citizens of the world as well. We should be voting and taking some leadership, because we can’t just build fortress nations. If ever there was a sport that needed to avoid that, it’s surfing! We travel. Look at that poster right behind you: The Endless Summer, the search for the perfect wave. There it is. That poster almost defines the sport of surfing. It is a global sport; it is people travelling around the world looking for amazing waves. It’s not just Baja trips, but trips to Indo, all sorts of places. Even on a selfish basis, those ramifications are already in place: It’s a little bit riskier this winter for any western surfer to go to some of these places. “We” as the western world, our political leaders. We need to be ready to be humble, respectful and for sure careful.

I don’t buy the conspiracy theories and things like that, I kind of lose patience. I understand very much that the world is controlled and driven by massive forces and some super rich individuals, but that isn’t to say that we can’t change it. In my own life, I’ve seen the ability of a small bunch of surfers with no campaigning experience or scientific knowledge stand up and help deliver £5.5 billion spend on the clean-up of our coastal waters, and take on ten massive privatised water companies. I’ve been a part of that. We can do that. Some people would have said that there’s a conspiracy theory and you’ll never change them. You can. We have to get active, and for sure the forces are massive. When the guy from the University of East Anglia was hacked, the climate change scientist, and there was an e-mail that said “we need to leave some evidence out” – wake up! You’re taking on the global oil industry, they’re going to hack you. Just be pure, and you can win. We’ll win. I’m positive about that. Can we solve the world’s energy crisis? Can we move to renewables?

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States

Eisenhower said we use our best brains to make weapons, and we make some amazing weapons. Who makes the best turbines in the world? Rolls Royce. And what are they used for? Military use. If you took those scientists and engineers and said: “Make a wave turbine to produce renewable energy” they could do that with their eyes closed. But society points people in the wrong way and we need to turn things around. Flip the military-to-motorsport/leisure-to-renewables technology trickle down on its head and say instead that we want all of the best technology to solve the world’s energy crisis, and we could do that if we actually realised it. Interestingly, on that film of Kelly’s about his political art show last year there was a guy who said “we’ve f****d up” and he said that he thinks something horrible is going to happen, and that’s probably true and there may be a series of events that will make us realise the error of our ways. But let’s make sure that as a sport and as a culture and as a microcosm of society, we as surfers are ready to do something about it.

If you could ask one thing of every person who reads this, what would it be?

Just one thing? Respect the planet and all of its inhabitants – not just humans.

If you’d like to get in touch with Chris to enquire about his consultancy work or to engage him as a speaker at your next event, then head over to A Grain of Sand.

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